Despite having such a lovingly crafted world at your fingertips, exploration isn't really what the game is about either. Because of its MMO-ish framework, The Crew has a strictly set path through which you must progress, starting in Detroit, heading up the East Coast, then down into Miami and across toward the West. For the first two areas at least, the game consists almost entirely of the story missions. The only other distractions are a separate PvP component unlocked in the East Coast (more on this later), some side mission "challenges", and searching for hidden radar dishes that unlock the side mission challenges.
This would be fine if the story missions demonstrated some variety, but they almost all revolve around four themes; races, checkpoint-based time-trials, destroying rival vehicles, and evading the police. As you might expect, the races are by far the most enjoyable, partly due to some splendidly designed stages. One sees you racing through a massive mine-complex, underneath cranes and alongside huge industrial vehicles, while another traces a line down the eastern shoreline, with huge white breakers spraying against the rocks. In addition, race-types expand as the game goes along, and you unlock different "specs" for your cars, tuning your car for street races or cross-country rallies.
Nevertheless, you can see the developers struggling to squeeze variety out of the limitations being permanently stuck inside a car imposes. What doesn't help is that the car handling is very simplistic. They're fun enough to drive, and there's a clear distinction in handling between different types of cars. Yet they're all very arcadey and none of them are particularly engaging.
You've probably noticed I haven't said anything about multiplayer yet, which may strike you as odd considering this is an online game about forming racing crews. Well, this is probably where the comparison between The Crew and Elder Scrolls Online is most apt. The Crew seems to have no clue about how to make itself a thrilling, dynamic multiplayer experience. Each mission can be played singleplayer or cooperatively, but this doesn't appear to add anything other than more cars on the road and more experience in your pocket. Also, the story demands that you win any race you enter, but doesn't count the involvement of other players, thus defeating the point of their presence. In short, it's not a multiplayer game, it's a singleplayer game played simultaneously.
PvP allows for more meaningful competitive racing. Players are transferred to a separate instance where they can race for experience and money. Again though, this experience is completely detatched from the open world that is supposedly the focal point of the game. You can see players desperately wanting to interact as they drive around. There was a brilliant feature in last year's Need for Speed: Rivals, where players could challenge one another to ad-hoc races which the game would generate on the fly. The desire for something similar is clearly present in the Crew. Any player you come across will immediately gun their engines in friendly provocation, but there's nothing to facilitate that competition except your own imagination. Perhaps that should be enough, but if you're going to charge players £50 for the privilege, it isn't.
In fact, the overwhelming feeling I got from the game was that it simply didn't know how to make itself fun. While in my virtual driving daze I started thinking about other racing games I love, like Burnout 3 and Ubisoft's own Driver: San Francisco, how those games were so systemically inventive and playful in tone. The Crew, by comparison, feels horribly flat. Its story takes itself so seriously that any attempt at humour feels markedly out of place, like a clown at a court sentencing. Moreover, the whole game seems designed to restrict and corral players down certain paths rather than letting them enjoy the freedom that such a vast game should offer.
In the end, I think the Crew can't decide what it wants to be, a singleplayer game or an MMO, to have fun or take itself seriously, to be a story-driven experience or an open-world playground. The result is a distinctly average racer that excels nowhere save in size, and anybody can do that if they eat enough Big Macs. Its design feels compromised at every turn by wanting to cater to the largest number of people, rather than committing to a single, cohesive idea. In short, the Crew is good enough company for a Sunday drive, but it's not one you'd want to take to the races.